This Wonderful Life
In Zach Theatre's production, Martin Burke singlehandedly restores George Bailey's faith in humanity
Reviewed by Elissa Russell, Fri., Dec. 26, 2014
This Wonderful LifeZach Whisenhunt Stage, 1510 Toomey, 512/476-0541
Through Dec. 28
Running time: 1 hr., 35 min.
Just about everyone who goes to the theatre has some type of play they don't like. For some, it's Shakespeare. For others, it's musicals. And for some, there's the dreaded one-person show. If you belong to that last camp, you may have refrained from attending This Wonderful Life strictly on the basis of it being a solo show. But I'm here to tell you that Zach Theatre's production, starring Martin Burke, serves as confirmation that the one-person show is sometimes a risk worth taking.
Now, when it comes to this format's success, much depends on the show, and in this case, I admit to being incredibly biased. See, This Wonderful Life is an adaptation of Frank Capra's classic 1946 film It's a Wonderful Life, which, due to uncountable Christmastime viewings, might just be the movie I've seen more times than any other. I realize that I'm not special in that – this film is so beloved, so quoted, so played on TV, that even if you have never seen it you probably feel like you have. Hearing that Zach was not only staging the story, but staging it with just one guy as everyone in Bedford Falls absolutely piqued my interest, and successfully held it all the way throughout. For those who truly love the film, who get chills every time Donna Reed sings "Buffalo Gals" or George lassos the moon, Zach's offering is a real treat. Not only are the movie's minutiae paid tribute to (right down to that knob that just won't stay on the stair rail!), but this meta-theatrical adaptation helps to remind us why we love this story, with the narrator highlighting some of its best moments, poking fun at some of its less thought-out plot points (why is there a pool beneath the high school gym floor?), and even taking a few jabs at the inherent constraints of a one-man show.
The overall effect, of course, is also reliant on the one man in question. And Burke maintains a quick, energetic pace throughout, but also slows down enough to strike all of the story's emotional chords. When narrating the tale, he injects a fresh humor into the tale that is not present in the original. As the selfless George Bailey, Burke takes the audience through the peaks and valleys of one man's life, his touching portrayal reminiscent, but not a copycat of, the legendary Jimmy Stewart. He draws clear differentiations between most of the 30-odd characters he plays, although at times some of his female characters could have been more clearly drawn. Still, within a few minutes, I had mostly forgotten that this was only one actor, which I believe to be a major goal of such a project.
I wonder how this production might come across for those who aren't familiar with the film. The story itself has a lot of heart, which I believe Zach has captured, but some of the play's humor feels like an inside joke for those who know the movie extremely well. Ultimately, though, the story's message of appreciating what one has resonates as loudly as the bell that earns Clarence his wings.